PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — These things can be simply rationalized, the 17th hole providing plenty of fear and loathing over the years during the Players Championship but also, quite frankly, offering a pretty large target for skilled golfers who are the best in the world.
And yet, if the par-3, 135-yard hole that is surrounded by water is so benign, why hasn’t everyone dominated it the way Rickie Fowler did a year ago?
“I don’t think it’s that easy,” said Joe Skovron, Fowler’s longtime caddie, chuckling at the idea that his boss made it appear that way. “I mean, he was doing the same thing over and over, putting the same swing on it. The wind switched a little, but he kept picking a target and hitting it there.”
Five times in six tries, Fowler birdied the hole that annually leads to fidgeting and fretting.
That included three straight times in the final round of the 2015 Players Championship, once in regulation and two more times in a playoff that Fowler captured for an exciting victory that finally pushed him across a line that had been frustratingly elusive.
For the first time in three years, Fowler had captured a PGA Tour title — one he looks to defend this week at Sawgrass — at a time when there were those who believed his hype far exceeded his résumé. In fact, it was during that same week of the Players Championship that a golf publication had released an anonymous poll in which it declared Fowler and Ian Poulter as the game’s most overrated players.
“It was just coincidence,” Fowler said again last week, continuing his stance that the survey had no impact on his victory. “I can’t sit here and actually give credit to it. That’s pretty funny. I mean, I laughed at the survey. Same as what Poulter did. It was obviously nice to win and take care of the survey. Shows you how credible they are. Yeah, it was fun. Whether you prove something wrong or just take care of business, it was a good time.”
Fowler continues to bite his lip when the subject is broached, but nonetheless there are signs that it bugged him.
The former Oklahoma State golfer might not have racked up the victories to that point, but he had emerged as a strong player, having twice been on U.S. Ryder Cup teams. And he established himself as one of the game’s young, hip, accessible faces who didn’t mind taking chances with his wardrobe.
That the substance had yet to catch up to the style was for others to worry about — even though, sure, there were some concerns that he had just one victory, in the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow.
Fowler, now 27, turned pro in 2009 and immediately tied for seventh in Las Vegas. The next week he lost in a playoff at the Frys.com Open — and it would be 64 more tournaments before he would get that first victory at Quail Hollow.
He beat Rory McIlroy in a playoff that day at Quail Hollow, and it seemed the breakthrough would mean plenty more victories were forthcoming. But it took another three years. There was a little-talked-about back issue; and then, late in 2013, Fowler decided to have instructor Butch Harmon take a look at his swing.
They decided to work together in full toward the end of that year, and such changes inevitably lead to setbacks. Although Fowler finished in the top five at all four major championships in 2014, he again did not have any victories.
“We knew there was the possibility of potentially having a down year,” Fowler said. “I was at a point where I wasn’t getting any better. I wasn’t getting as much out of myself as I wanted to. Possibly with where I was at, I was getting about as much as I could swing-wise and game-wise, but I wanted more. So to take a step back, I knew that I was possibly taking a risk of having nine to 12 months where I would be a little slow and then back off and running.”
The changes came faster than expected, but they still didn’t result in any victories.
And before the Players in 2015, he wasn’t exactly contending. He tied for ninth the previous week at the WGC-Match Play, his only top-10 of the year to that point. Even during the tournament, he wasn’t showing many signs that he was going to win.
“I think personally he and I were more patient than everyone else,” Skovron said. “We knew we were working toward something that was going to come. Guys want to win, and he wanted to get wins on the board. And he had some expectations on him. We were coming along and people were like, ‘When is it going to happen, when is it going to happen?’ Hey, he’s 24, 25 years old. It’s going to come. And then he just took off from there. A lot of good stuff.”
Although he was only 3 shots off the lead through 54 holes at the Players a year ago, he was tied for 11th place. And, in the final round, he was 1 over for the day through 12 holes and needed a good up-and-down for a par at the 12th to keep any hopes alive.
And then his run began. Fowler birdied the 13th, made par on the 14th and added another birdie at the 15th. He knocked to 3 feet at the par-5 16th for an eagle — his first career eagle at that hole — to get within 1 shot of the lead.
Then he made the first of his three birdies on the day at the 17th before pounding a 330-yard drive at the 18th to set up another birdie. He played his last four holes in 11 strokes.
Of course, that wasn’t enough as he had to take on Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner in a three-hole aggregate playoff. After Garcia bowed out, it was sudden death, where Fowler prevailed with another birdie at the 17th.
“There were a couple of key holes that kept me going on Sunday, one being 12, and then I was able to go on from there,” Fowler said. “And then obviously the swings down the stretch, the wedges on 17 and the drives on 18. It was nice to come off a year before having some really good finishes in majors and then to get over the hump and actually win.”
Although Fowler had some difficulties soon afterward — he missed the cut at the Memorial and at the U.S. Open — he won the Scottish Open the week before The Open, then captured the Deutsche Bank Championship in the FedEx Cup playoffs.
When he won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on the European Tour in January, Fowler had four victories worldwide in less than a year and had vaulted to No. 4 in the world, starting talk of a big four along with Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and McIlroy.
“Anytime I’ve thought about Rickie under pressure, he’s always hit the shot when he needed to,” McIlroy said. “You look to the playoff [at Quail Hollow in 2012] … and the way he finished the Players, look at how he finished off the Scottish Open last year, how he finished off in Abu Dhabi this year. He’s always been able to close.
“Sometimes it takes guys a little longer than others to develop and learn the necessary skills or mental attitude. I think if anything, he’s just got a little bit more of a ruthless streak in him. He’s such a nice guy and sometimes maybe that was reflected on how he was on the course instead of being a little more single-minded. He’s a great player, and I think that Players victory definitely opened the door for him to kick on and win more, which he’s done.”
Fowler wasn’t able to follow through this past Sunday at the Wells Fargo. He had a 1-shot lead after 54 holes, bogeyed two of the first four holes, added a double-bogey at the seventh and could never make up the ground, coming in at 74.
That he finished only 2 shots behind showed some resolve on a day when he didn’t have it. A score of 72 would have put Fowler in a playoff, but he wasn’t kicking himself as much as looking at the positives.
“It still feels good,” he said. “Disappointed not to get the win, but feel good about the way Joe and I fought and hung in there.”
That’s sort of what Fowler has been doing for the bulk of his career, and, although it took some time to click, he appears to be on to something.